Seasons in Boston: 2017-Present
Honors: 7x All-Star, 2018 World Series Champion
Red Sox Numbers: 3.08 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 35 W, 763 K, 66 ERA-, 17.4 fWAR
Signature Season (2017): 214.1 IP, 308 K, 17 W, 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 7.6 fWAR
My happiest Chris Sale memory is of him striking out Manny Machado to secure the 2018 World Series for the Red Sox. Sale had battled back from injuries in the second half of 2018 after somehow pitching even better during his healthy portion of that season than he did in his near-record breaking 2017 campaign. It was poetic to see the hated villain, famous for spiking Dustin Pedroia and likely ending his career, end the game buckling to one knee while whiffing at a Sale slider. Sometimes you can’t write the script better than the baseball gods themselves. This game is beautiful.
Sale’s legacy with the Red Sox is still being written as he just re-upped with the team through 2024. He did undergo Tommy John surgery earlier this year, but he probably couldn’t have picked a better time to do so. During the three years that he has spent here he’s left an indelible mark on the franchise’s history. The Red Sox traded for Sale on December 6, 2016 in a blockbuster which sent top prospects Yoán Moncada and Michael Kopech along with Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz to the White Sox. His first year here was the best pitching season in a Red Sox uniform since Pedro Martínez’s dominating 2000. That year Sale struck out 308 batters, becoming just the 19th pitcher ever to eclipse 300 while also coming in as the most strikeouts in team history for a lefty and second most to Martinez’s 313 in 1999. On top of that, his overall FanGraphs WAR on the year was the 11th best for any pitcher in team history. Every start for Sale was an event at Fenway Park.
Although he’s only been here for a short time, the near guarantee he will be here for longer helps his case for being included, along with the historic nature of the time he’s already spent here. Even his injury-shortened 2018 campaign ranks just outside of the Red Sox top 25 pitching seasons of all-time by one statistic, coming in at 27th by FanGraphs WAR. His aforementioned 2017 season is the best single season by anyone not named Martinez, Roger Clemens, or Cy Young.
He makes my list as a reliever because he did make two relief appearances in the 2018 playoffs: the one mentioned above, as well as one in which he earned a hold against the Yankees in Game Four of the ALDS. He also, unlike other starters I could have considered for this role, has a history of pitching in relief during his career. When his big-league career started with the White Sox he was a reliever, throwing 95 ⅓ innings with a 2.55 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with 12 career saves. We actually know how effective he can be in relief.
Like the previous entry in this series, Curt Schilling, Sale has spent the bulk of his career and nearly his entire time with the Red Sox pitching as a starter. Also like Schilling, he has one hyper elite aspect of his game: He strikes everyone out and walks almost no one. In fact, Sale is far superior to Schilling in this regard with a 5.64 strikeout to walk rate, the best in baseball history for pitchers with at least 1500 innings. This mark is almost a full strikeout better than Schilling, who owns the best mark in history for pitchers with at least 2000 innings at 4.66. We’ve already seen how this skill can translate to relief and in building this team, with an eye to real roster construction, I could not leave him off. He may ultimately end up displacing one the members of this team who made it as a starter a few years down the road. He is that good.
Over his entire career Sale has already posted some excellent totals. In addition to leading all starters in strikeout to walk ratio over 1500 innings, he is number one in K%-BB% at 25.3%, 10th best in ERA- at 72 and opponent batting average at .217, and 4th best in WHIP at 1.03. His WAR7 is 39.2 according to FanGraphs and 39.4 according to Baseball Reference. This mark is ahead of a handful of Hall of Famers, and he’s 26th in baseball history in Cy Young shares at 1.88. In fact, he received Cy Young votes every year from 2012-2018 while also receiving MVP votes every year from 2015-2018. He has never finished worse than sixth when receiving Cy Young votes, though he’s also never actually won the award. Sale has led the league in strikeouts twice in 2015 and 2017 and also led the league in complete games in 2013 and 2016.
While Sale still has a ways to go to make his case for Cooperstown and hopefully many more chapters to write here in Boston, what he has done over the last three seasons is impressive. His three years rank ahead of Smoky Joe Wood’s best three years by FanGraphs WAR — 17.4 to 17.2 — and he’s not far behind the three best years from Lefty Grove, who is at 20.2. If Sale can come back healthy and effective as I think he will, then he will only continue to climb up this list and challenge for a starters spot. Until then he will have to settle as a middle reliever on the All-Time team.